Dhiyampati and the Pluto Project (Conclusion)

Continued from yesterday’s post.

Dhiyampati and Ellen have reached the center of the machine. Dhiyampati stands there, still, listening to the afterlife engine’s hum.

“It is like the music of the spheres,” he says.

Ellen closes her eyes.

“It’s not happy, though,” she says.

Dhiyampati grins over at her.

“Well, it’s not,” she protests. “It’s agitated.”

“Yes,” he agrees. He puts his hand on his chin. “So there is the question. Why would a man who has agreed to embark on the exploration of Pluto travel to Pluto in one case, and to parts unknown in another?”

Dhiyampati calls forth his elohite. It bursts into being with a sound that resonates with the entirety of the machine.

“Is the engine working?” he asks.

The elohite stares down at him. Then she laughs.

“The explorers have gone,” Dhiyampati asks, “. . . where they have chosen to go?”

“That is an ambiguous question,” says the elohite. “Where have they chosen to go?”

“The research station on Pluto?”

The elohite looks puzzled. “Why would an explorer want to go there?

Dhiyampati looks up. He frowns.


But elohim do not answer the same question twice; and it is gone as swiftly as it came.

Dhiyampati and Ellen walk back to the meeting room. Dhiyampati’s frown persists.

“It isn’t the same,” says Ellen.


Ellen is thinking. “It isn’t the same,” she says. “To go somewhere for the first time. Even the second. And later. There’s something special about the first time you see the inside of an afterlife engine. And can you imagine how wondrous it would be to be the first person to have met an elohite, or piloted a plane? But now, these things are ordinary. With each experience, that experience grows less.”

Dhiyampati’s brow clears. Then it furrows.

“Why haven’t you mentioned this before?”

“I can’t call up elohim to tell me obvious things,” says Ellen. “So I don’t see them. Like, for instance, sometimes I think I want pizza. But I really need good food for energy. If I could summon up an elohite, she’d tell me, ‘Don’t get pizza.'”

“Only the first time,” Dhiyampati murmurs, wryly.

“But instead, I summon up Domino’s.”

“Well,” says Dhiyampati. “Then it seems the matter is resolved. Your missing people are off on a Pluto that they can explore for the first time. They are not in contact because—”

Here he hesitates.

“I suppose,” he says, “that there are information issues. I mean, should they contact you, then it becomes impossible that they are the first to explore Pluto.”

“But where are they?” Ellen asks.

Dhiyampati laughs. “Death is a great adventure,” he says. “But there are no good maps.”

They have reached the meeting room. Mr. Cullens spins around in his chair. He says, “I’m thinking Satanic monkeys.”

Dhiyampati stares at him.

Mr. Cullens frowns. He’d been hoping to have correctly anticipated the solution. Now he is forced to stammer out his ideas only partly formed. “I mean,” he says, “we know that elohim are reliable. We can prove that mathematically. But what if you have an unformed elohite—an unfinished creature, only partially manifest, an evil and unevolved creature, a gremlin—”

“I think they’ve chosen to seek out a fresh, new Pluto rather than the same old Pluto that everyone else is exploring,” says Dhiyampati.

“. . . ah,” says Mr. Cullens.

“It’s not a broken machine?” says Mr. Brown.

Dhiyampati goes to the blackboard. He begin to sketch out the equations, with occasional references to the contract that the explorers signed. At several points, Mr. Cullens, Ellen, or Mr. Brown contribute their own thoughts to the matter; when they are done, the truth is staring out at them from the chalk.

“Well,” says Mr. Brown. “That’s not a broken machine, but damned if I can say what to do about it.”


“We can’t just abandon people to live out eternity in a random Pluto-like environment,” Mr. Brown points out.

“Not eternity,” says Ellen. “I mean, you can’t give someone an eternal afterlife without massive feedback.”

“Regardless,” Mr. Brown says, “They’re a huge investment for the company.”

“We could send anti-explorers after them,” Mr. Cullens proposes. “With nets.”

Dhiyampati frowns.

Ellen leans in beside Dhiyampati. She mutters, “He is good at the engineering side.”

“No nets,” says Dhiyampati.

“Well, we can’t just leave them there!” Mr. Brown expostulates.

“Have you considered damning them?” Dhiyampati asks.

“I’ve been damning them ever since they bloody vanished!”

“No,” says Dhiyampati. “I mean . . .”

“Oh,” says Mr. Brown.

Mr. Cullens frowns. “Isn’t that immoral? I thought you could only damn people for treason.”

Dhiyampati gestures broadly. “In the hellfire and brimstone sense, perhaps. But in the technical meaning?”

Mr. Brown thinks about that. “Technically,” he says, “A damnation is any—”

“They’re volunteers!” says Mr. Cullens.

“Let me finish,” snaps Mr. Brown.

“We’re supposed to protect them,” says Mr. Cullens. “It’s ridiculous. People come in and offer us their services and—”

“Let me finish!” says Mr. Brown.

“Ah,” says Dhiyampati.

Mr. Cullens shakes his head and goes silent.

“I suppose technically,” says Mr. Brown, “that a damnation is feeding people the consequences of any choice they didn’t really want the consequences for. Like when a modest person gets rewarded or a liar trapped in their own lies.”

“Here,” says Dhiyampati, “each of them has made the choice to do something that you did not agree that they could do—to explore the wrong Pluto, and send no data back. Surely enforcing the consequences of that choice upon them—that is to say, forcing them to pay their debt to you in the following life—is a valid damnation.”

“We still have access to their elohim,” concedes Mr. Brown. “We could do it.”

“But it’s ridiculous,” says Mr. Cullens. “They didn’t plan to run out on their obligations.”

“Oh dear,” says Dhiyampati. “What does planning have to do with choice?”

5 thoughts on “Dhiyampati and the Pluto Project (Conclusion)

  1. Okay, now I’m imagining this as a convention scenario. It’s perfect for that: interesting premise, neatly delimited problem space. Add a gunfight or two and it’s all set.

    Clearly, having all my regular games simultaneously go on hiatus for a month makes my brain go screwy.

  2. Reminds me of the debugging which takes up all my time nowadays. Unfortunately I’m always the one with the half-formed idea that turns out to be wrong…

  3. that’s why I love science. Proving that something is wrong is just as (if not more) important as proving that something is right.

  4. When I first saw this story, I thought it had something to do with the REAL Pluto Project.

    Of course, it doesn’t.

    Which I thought was kind of a pity. Not to say that I didn’t enjoy the story — I did — but the real Pluto Project is such a spectacularly bizarre yet forgotten part of American history that I was looking forward to seeing where Rebecca’s imagination ran with it.

    So let me tell you about the REAL Pluto Project.

    Like Rebecca’s story, it involves death. And engineering. And thorny debugging issues.

    But the similarities end there.

    The Pluto Project was a weapon designed during the Cold War. It may be the most ghastly weapon ever conceived in the nukular era.

    Imagine, if you will, an automated drone. This drone looks a lot like a missile; it’s the size of a locomotive, it’s shaped like a missile, it’s got missile-y fins and such, but it is, in fact an unmanned aircraft. It is not designed to crash into anything, but to fly over things.

    It is designed to fly over things very, very quickly.

    Say, MACH 3 or so.

    What’s more, it is designed to evade an enemy’s defenses by flying very low. Say, 1000 feet or so.

    Now, travelling at three times the speed of sound at such a low altitude is quite a feat. Any conventional aircraft would run out of fuel in a hurry.

    But this was to be no conventional aircraft. It was designed to be nuclear.

    The principle guiding the design of the propulsion was, quite simply, that if you completely strip out all that bulky annoying radiation shielding, the thrust:weight ratio in a fission ramjet can get pretty damn impressive.

    And let’s not forget why it was going to fly fast and low over the land:

    To nuke things.

    This was to be an unmanned nuclear bomber, with a payload of up to 26 nuclear weapons.

    So, imagine:

    You have an unmanned aircraft the size of a locomotive doing MACH 3 at near treetop level. In addition to the cataclysmic sonic boom, it is like a mobile Chernobyl, carving a swath of hard radiation (not to mention fallout from all the dust particles sucked into the engine) in its wake. Up to 26 times during its journey, it spits out a mushroom cloud. And then, after about eight hours or so, the stresses placed on it become too great and it crashes, leaving a modest impact crater and a massive radioactive mess.

    It is like an apocalyptic Santa Claus.

    The Pluto Project proceeded so far that they’d actually run tests — successful tests — on the engines. But then, somebody asked a very important question:

    How would you TEST something like this?

    There was no part of the propesed testing process that didn’t scare the pants off of oeverybody involved with the project. Even without the payload, it was still a devastating weapon. Since it was automated, there was the very real possibility that the guidance system would turn out to need some work, and nobody wanted this thing veering off-course and buzzing over, say, Los Angeles.

    In fact, the engineers on the project were hard-pressed to find a place they DID want it to fly over — without provoking World War III, of course. Somebody — presumably the ’60’s incarnation of Dilbert’s pointy-haired manager — suggested testing it in the Nevada desert and tying it to a tether to both prevent it from veering off course and to keep the environmental holocaust localized.

    Remember, size of a locomotive.

    Remember, MACH 3.

    Remember, fission ramjet.

    As one of the engineers put it, “That’s some tether.”

    The project was cancelled in 1964. The world was left to wonder what might have been, and give thanks that it never found out.

  5. Not unlike the nuclear-powered bomber aircraft that inspired Hilbert Schenck’s novella Steam Bird, which had many fascinating features.

    For instance, weight considerations meant that the reactor mounts couldn’t be as sturdy as one would like, meaning that the entire reactor core might just fall through the bottom of the plane during take-off (a phenomenon called “roll up”). Also, when engine thrust was reversed after landing, the reactor coolant ran open-loop, spewing radioactive steam all over the place–and if there wasn’t quite enough coolant, the core would melt down, or the plane would be unable to decelerate and would taxi into a building or something. Furthermore, once the engines had been ignited, the rear of the plane would forevermore be intensely radioactive; there were plans for a set of movable radiation shields riding on rails in the hangar, towed by a miniature diesel locomotive.

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